Move Over Drs. Oz and Zakaria–Here Comes Dr. Aslan

The publishing event of the summer thus far seems to be a book by Iranian-born sociologist of religion Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (Random House, 2013).  The response to the book, which presents Jesus as a social revolutionary, has been rather predictable, with secularists applauding and conservative Christians reacting with disdain to yet another portrayal of Jesus that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the New Testament.

I should say at the outset that I have not read the book, and probably won’t.  Aslan is not a professional Christian origins scholar, but rather a sociologist of religion specializing in Islamic studies, and the early reviews suggest that the book breaks no new scholarly ground.  Of course, I’m not a professional New Testament scholar either, though as a theologian I’m aware of the field and teach a course now and again on “Jesus in Faith and History,” and I’m confident that Aslan will return the favor by not reading my forthcoming book on Christology.

There is a long history of attempts to portray Jesus as a political/social revolutionary in the modern period, and the story has been told well (see, e.g., Ernst Bammel, “The Revolution Theory from Reimarus to Brandon,” in Ernst Bammel and C. F. D. Moule, eds., Jesus and the Politics of His Day (Cambridge UP, 1984), pp. 11-68).  Such efforts generally involve efforts to debunk traditional Christology and/or to make Jesus more relevant to the immanentistic and political concerns of a particular period.

The bookends of Bammel’s article are useful reference points.  Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768) in an anonymously published eighteenth-century work presented Jesus as an inept political revolutionary who got himself killed in the process, and the disciples as schemers who stole the body of Jesus and set themselves up as leaders of a new religion.  One of the more recent extended scholarly iterations of the theory, S. G. F. Brandon’s Jesus and the Zealots:  A Study of the Political Factor in Primitive Christianity (Scribner’s, 1967), was roundly criticized in the Bammel/Moule volume and elsewhere on the grounds that (a) there was much in the New Testament that militated (pun intended) otherwise, and (b) the historical basis for Brandon’s argument was flimsy in that there was no solid evidence of an organized “Zealot” party prior to the AD 60s (i.e., decades after the time of Jesus).

For these reasons, the Jesus-as-political-revolutionary theory has not gotten as much press recently.  For example, it plays little role in the work of prominent Jesus Seminar figures (with whom Aslan has some methodological similarities), who alternatively have presented Jesus as a “wandering cynic” (Burton Mack and J. D. Crossan) or as an apocalyptic visionary of this worldly social transformation (Marcus Borg).

Aslan is aware of all this, but he probably thought the market was ripe for a resuscitation of what seems to be a tired theory.  He doubtless knows that the evidence for an organized “Zealot” movement in the time of Jesus is elusive, so he apparently presents Jesus as a sort of proto-Zealot.  Of course, the New Testament evidence points in a rather different direction, but Aslan has a quick answer for that.  Like many of the Jesus Seminar scholars, he regards the New Testament accounts as late and unreliable.  In the August 5, 2013 issue of Time, he opined:

My biography of Jesus is probably the first popular biography that does not use the New Testament as its primary source material.  My primary source material is 1st century Palestine, the world in which Jesus lived. . . . The New Testament is not a historical document.  It was written by communities of faith many years after the events that they describe.  So the historian has no choice but to try to cull as much information as possible from the world in which he lived.

For these reasons, I find Aslan’s latest book of recycled popularization focusing on the sociology of Jesus to be less interesting than the sociology of the Reza Aslan phenomenon itself.  In recent years we have seen a number of photogenic Middle-Eastern men carve out significant market share in America as authoritative commentators and media figures.  Mehmet Oz is now one of the best-known television medical advisors, while Fareed Zakaria is a prominent political commentator and author.  Now Aslan has emerged as a popular pundit on matters religious.  All three were raised as Muslims (only Oz was born in the US), but are more than competent in the context of American culture.  All three have earned doctorates from American institutions, and all three have largely eschewed the path of technical clinical work and scholarship for the much more lucrative path of popularization.

What all this says about America is doubtless complicated and difficult to discern.  It could simply be evidence of the increasing pluralism of America, but I suspect that more is involved.  Certainly the Middle East has figured prominently in American foreign policy and cultural concerns since the 1960s, and the old fascination with exotic matters eastern and “oriental” may play a role.  Ex Oriente Lux!  Islam poses the greatest contemporary religious challenge to the West, and people are understandably curious about it.  Doubtless the fact that all three are effective on television is significant here as well.

It seems to me that Aslan is particularly well-positioned to take advantage of the Zeitgeist.  Not only was he born a Muslim, but as a teenager he converted to Evangelical Christianity and was a fervent evangelist for his adopted faith before returning to Islam.  As Aslan himself put it in Time:

When I was 15 years old, I heard the Gospel for the first time and gave my life to Christ and began preaching the Gospel for the next five years to everyone, including my family. . . . I had a pretty good conversion rate.  My mother is still a Christian.  I now rely upon the symbols and metaphors of Islam.

Thus he is himself a metaphor for a pluralistic and post-Christian American culture.